I had two very distinct impressions of the Himba when I met them: 1) the women have the most incredible hair I’ve ever seen and 2) they’re not shy.
Let me explain. The Himba are a semi-nomadic tribe living in the northwest region of Kunene, also referred to as Kaokoland in Namibia. This region only has a population density of one person per every 2 square kilometres. As a result of their isolation and secluded lifestyle they still hold to their culture and traditional way of life.
I know it’s rude to stare, but I couldn’t help it. I was transfixed at the Himba woman who greeted us with her ochre covered hair. I had never seen anything like it.
Meeting the Himba can also be a bit daunting though as Stone, the videographer on our group found out. She hopped in beside him, fluttering her eyelashes. Several minutes later she told the driver in her native tongue to tell him that he could rest his head on her shoulder if he wanted. A very now uncomfortable Stone diverted his eyes from her naked chest and replied No thank you, I have a girlfriend. Not to be deterred, and much to the amusement of the rest of our group, she persisted while the driver translating. Although no translation was needed to know that she had a thing for Stone. Or at least she did from our western perspective. Perhaps her behaviour meant something else only to the Himbas.
We hopped off the jeep, arriving at a village where we were greeted by more shirtless Himbas. Each person came up to each of us, greeted us with a handshake while stating their name, their eyes questioning us for our names. It was an intense look, one that seemed to penetrate right through you. I’ll admit the look made me slightly uncomfortable, although I get the impression they were trying to be welcoming.
Next, Mariana an 18 year old Himba girl proceeded to demonstrate how the women cover themselves with otjize, a mixture of butter fat and ochre. It gives the skin a reddish tinge, and symbolizes the redness of the earth and the colour of blood which symbolizes life. This is the Himba ideal standard of beauty – and not one I’ve seen anywhere else. This is also how the women clean themselves. They do not bathe, that’s reserved for the men only.
If their habits seemed strange to us, they could say the same about us. Mariana asked each of us how old we were and if were married and had children. She kept shaking her head in disbelief as each of us said we didn’t have children. Himbas marry quite young and also have children at a young age.
Without a doubt interacting with the children were my favourite part of my visit. They were expressive and much like the first Himba lady we met who was crushing on Stone, not shy.
Next up we headed over to another hut where the rest of the tribe had set up a make-shift market selling their hand-made goods. I did buy a couple of things and afterwards also made a donation when they danced for us but felt uncomfortable. Was this responsible tourism? It wasn’t like the time I’d spent earlier in Etosha National Park, or my visit to the Cheetah Conservation Fund. To me, it’s a grey area. The Himba directly benefit monetarily from tourists. They receive money from tourist visits and the drivers bring in heavy goods like bags of rice which save the women a day of walking. On the other hand, it’s very strange when a child who’s only contact with the outside world is tourists, tries to flick the screen on your iPhone to make the photo bigger. He didn’t quite have the technique down, but he certainly understood the concept. You could argue that change is coming one way or another isn’t it? On the other hand, shouldn’t tourists try and not accelerate it? Just let it happen on its own and to learn from it? But then what about the opportunity to interact with a culture so different from your own? Or are we just romanticizing the Himba? I couldn’t make up my mind about whether my visit was responsible tourism and several months later, it still leaves me unsettled.
Know Before You Visit the Himba People:
- Visits are only possible at certain times throughout the year due to their semi-nomadic lifestyle.
- It’s possible to visit the Himba from a variety of companies of which the list can be found on Nambia Tourism’s site.
- The cheapest way to get to the remote Kunene Region is to drive, but fly-in safaris are also available.
- I recommend staying at the Grootberg Lodge where we stayed. I loved my stay here. Note: there are no fences so it’s possible to encounter wild animals on the hotel grounds. Apparently there’s a leopard who enjoys hanging out by the pool at night.